Once in a blue moon, Joel and Ethan Coen will deliver a picture that is far more stimulating on the screen, in a purely visual sense, than on the page. A film like The Man Who Wasn’t There, for instance, was less a triumph in screenwriting than a brooding feast for the eyes, made all the more captivating by Billy Bob Thornton’s masterful leading turn.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs marks one of these instances, except it lacks a performance on Thornton’s level. It’s a western anthology and, like so many anthology pictures, is a mixed bag, its half dozen chapters ranging from droll and delightful to uninspired and anti-climatic. The lone bright spot that lingers throughout the proceedings is how drop dead gorgeous it all is, Bruno Delbonnel’s photography richly deserving of Oscar consideration.
The film’s six stories are presented through an ancient book, titled The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Other Tales of the American Frontier.
Kicking off the series is, well, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” a chapter equal parts funny and gruesome as the title character (Tim Blake Nelson), an outlaw cowboy, sings and shoots his way through the glorious Monument Valley. Nelson’s buoyant turn is irresistible stuff, so it’s a shame the entry flies by in no time. Likewise, the second story, “Near Algodones,” is terrific but fleeting. It features James Franco as a bank-robbing cowboy but it’s Stephen Root, as the plenty prepared bank teller, who steals the show.
“Meal Ticket” has heaps of promise but, despite a intriguing turn from Harry Melling, never takes off as it should. It sports Liam Neeson as a struggling impresario who travels from town to town with his performer Harrison (Melling), a limbless man who recites classic works of poetry and literature. As Harrison increasingly proves less of a draw, the producer must consider alternative talents to support a living. It’s a fine concept that isn’t sufficiently fleshed out.
The very best story comes next - it’s the prettiest (like, jaw-droppingly splendid) and most absorbing and expertly performed. “All Gold Canyon” is centered on an old prospector (Tom Waits) on the hunt for gold in a magnificent mountain valley. Through tireless work and determination, he finds precisely what he was looking for…and don’t you dare try robbing him of his findings.
The fifth story, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” is headlined by Zoe Kazan, portraying Alice, a young woman venturing across the prairie to Oregon with her brother (Jefferson Mays). When he dies, she decides to continue on westward and becomes close to the wagon train leaders (Bill Heck and Grainger Hines) in the process. If Kazan rings too contemporary to quite convince in her role, Hines is pitch-perfect as the seasoned Mr. Arthur.
Last and least is “The Mortal Remains,” a chatty tale about a quintet of stagecoach travelers (Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Saul Rubinek, Jongo O’Neill and Chelcie Ross) en route to a mysterious destination. The novelty of seeing Daly, per usual giving it her all, in a semi-major motion picture isn’t enough to much lift this uninvolving dud.
In the end, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs emerges more a haphazard curiosity than anything close to top-tier Coens. It is a must-see for Waits fans and sure is a pretty picture but otherwise - mark this down as one of the more disappointing efforts of 2018.